Perhaps it's not that people have shorter attention spans, it could be a problem with platforms. That's the argument made by The New York Times upon the announcement of Amazon's January launch of Kindle Singles, a series of one-off essays and short stories priced between $1 and $5 that you can download to the device or to smart phones, or sometimes find online from the respective content provider for free. This new series is Amazon's attempt to bridge the gap between books and long-format magazines in print with digital content that is actually palatable to read.
The point, duly noted if not emphasized enough, is that books do not always translate to readability in pixilation because of discomfort with reading small fonts on a small screen for hours and hours at a time. Amazon and other companies are responding to this sentiment by starting to publish content that is potentially more appropriate to the platform of handheld devices for the consumer: digital pamphlets ranging between 10,000 to 30,000 words long, in page length between 30 to 90, which, according to Amazon's press release, could be "twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book," and are priced much less than standard books.
The digital pamphlet solution also helps to find a home for writers without traditional publishers--producers of the novella, or the longer format news story. Nieman Journalism Lab argues that this singles model will allow for an atomization of interest at the level of the journalist, beyond the brand of the broader news publication. This is paralleled to what happened with iTunes and music, when suddenly the interest was about buying a song and no longer about buying the album. Further, the Lab argues that this progress may even enable the middleman of news organizations to be cut from the equation entirely, allowing "an individual writer to kind of go around getting the approval of a glossy magazine editor or getting a newspaper editor's approval to get something to an audience."
For Kindle Singles, according to Amazon's press release, a call was made for "serious writers, thinkers, scientists, business leaders, historians, politicians and publishers to join Amazon in making such works available to readers around the world." The structure is such that there is no pricing discrepancies, or deals to be made with a large third-party organization (contrary to current tension abuzz about Apple subscriptions through iTunes for the iPad), since it's the company's own self-publishing product, allowing writers and publishers to price and directly sell their content on the Kindle platform.
In a later blog entry, the Lab also discovered an interesting twist to the proposed journalist/news organization dichotomy mentioned above, in that we are seeing "individual news organizations using the singles model to circumvent traditional constraints on publishing." An example is ProPublica, which in tandem with the Kindle Singles launch published a story through the platform by staff writer Sebastian Rotella, titled, "Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story," a nearly 13,000-word-long exposé about the complex set of relationships and circumstances that led to terror attacks in 2008.
"Long for a web piece, short for a book;" the Lab sees ProPublica's investigative pamphlet a perfect specimen for Kindle Singles. Selling for 99 cents was an experiment, according to Richard Tofel, ProPublica's general manager. The experiment has proven a success so far, shown by the pamphlet regularly making the top 10 of the Kindle Singles bestseller list, sitting in the number one slot for e-news about terrorism and international security, and number one across the board under the international security category. This, and with literally no marketing effort outside of placing the piece with Amazon.
As for money derived from Kindle Singles, in the first two weeks the pamphlet sold more than 1,900 copies. This is interesting to consider when it can be found for free on ProPublica's website. Clearly digital positioning is paying off. Seventy percent of the Kindle Singles royalties are paid to ProPublica, a small if helpful extra income stream for the organization. Listing it with Amazon has required little-to-no work.
It seems this partnership achieves two seemingly incompatible goals, "editorial impact and financial gain," writes the Lab. Goals many news organizations are trying to mitigate, often in futility.
Kindle Singles is one of a few ventures heading toward this new paradigm of reading pamphlets and other singles on digital handheld devices. Of course we are all aware of what's happening with the iPad, as predated by the iPhone and iTouch. There is also the Nook from Barnes & Noble. Publishing houses are cropping up to fulfill the content side of this new paradigm: Atavist provides "nonfiction storytelling for the digital age," and Vook mixes stories with video for tablets and e-readers. According to The New York Times, many digital boutiques, including Push Pop Press, Cursor and Byliner, are also promising to deliver new breeds of content primarily through mobile devices.
Reading single immersive pieces that are not too long is becoming a comfortable digital reality.